Microsoft Virtualization: part 5 (presentation virtualisation)

Continuing the series of posts on Microsoft Virtualization technologies, I’ll move onto what Microsoft refers to as presentation virtualisation (and everyone else calls terminal services, or server based computing).

Like host virtualisation, Terminal Services is not a new technology and Microsoft has provided basic Terminal Server capabilities within Windows Server for many years, with Citrix providing the enterprise functionality for those who need it. With Windows Server 2008, Microsoft has taken a step forward, introducing new Terminal Services functionality – with new features including:

  • Terminal Services Web Access – providing a web portal for access to RemoteApps – applications which run on the terminal server but have the look and feel of a local application (albeit subject to the limitations of the RDP connection – this is probably not the best way to deploy graphics-intensive applications). Whilst this is a great feature, it is somewhat let down by the fact that the Web Access portal is not customisable and that all users see all RemoteApps (although permissions are applied to control the execution of RemoteApps). For web access to RemoteApps, v6.1 of the Remote Desktop Connection (RDP) client is required but for v6.0 clients an MSI may be created using RemoteApp Manager (which may be deployed using Active Directory group policy).
  • Terminal Services Gateway – provides a seamless connection to Terminal Services (over HTTPS) without need for a VPN. It’s not intended to replace the need for a firewall (e.g. ISA Server) but it does mean that only one port needs to be opened (443) and may be an appropriate solution when a local copy of the data is not required or when bandwidth/application characteristics make the VPN experience poor.
  • Terminal Services Session Broker – a new role to provide load balancing and which enables a user to reconnect to an existing session in a load-balanced terminal server farm.

There are improvements on the client end too – for details of the client enhancements in Remote Desktop Connection (v6.1), provided with Windows XP SP3, Vista SP1 and Server 2008 see Microsoft knowledge base article 951616.

One of the more signicificant improvements in RDP 6.1 (but which requires Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services Printing) is Terminal Services EasyPrint. Whereas printing is traditionally problematic in a server-based computing environment (matching drivers, etc.) – Terminal Services EasyPrint presents a local print dialog and prints to the local printer – no print drivers are required on the server and there is complete transparency if a 32-bit client is used with a 64-bit server. If the application understands XPS (i.e. it uses the Windows Presentation Framework) then it prints XPS using the EasyPrint XPS Driver (which creates an XPS spool file). Otherwise there is a GDI to XPS conversion module (e.g. for Win32 applications). On the client side, the spool file is received over RDP using the Remote Desktop Connection with an EasyPrint plugin to spool the XPS through an XPS printer driver (converted by print processor if required). If the print device does not support XPS, the print job is converted to EMF by the Microsoft.NET Framework and printed using a GDI printer driver.

Terminal Services EasyPrint

Whilst Microsoft’s presentation virtualisation offerings may not be as fully-featured as those from other vendors, most notably Citrix, they are included within the Windows Server 2008 operating system and offer a lot of additional functionality when compared with previous Windows Server releases.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at how the four strands of Microsoft Virtualization (host/server, desktop, application and presentation) are encapsulated within an overall management framework using System Center products.

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